Commentary: Kinderland preschool abuse cases strike a raw nerve with parents
The arrest of two Kinderland teachers over alleged child abuse has raised anxiety among parents about what happens after they drop their kids off at preschool. Ensuring good reliable childcare could not be more crucial, says CNA's Charlene Tan.
SINGAPORE: Last week, for the first time, I noticed the closed-circuit television cameras in the preschool my children attend, at the entrance and common play area. I found myself wondering if there were CCTV cameras in the classrooms too.
There or not, they will soon be mandatory. On Thursday (Aug 31), the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) said CCTV cameras will be required from Jul 1 next year. This came just days after two Kinderland preschool teachers in the Woodlands Mart and Choa Chu Kang centres were arrested over separate incidents of alleged abuse.
One, Lin Min, was charged with ill-treating a 23-month-old child by forcing her to lie down and pouring water into her mouth - an act some have described as torture. I could barely breathe watching the videos that brought the Kinderland saga to light: When alleged abuse involves children almost the same age as your own, it strikes a raw nerve.
What happens after I wave them goodbye at drop-off every morning? Was the last time my child refused to go to school a tantrum or a cry for help?
Anxious parents must have asked themselves this many times since. Some advocated CCTVs for the protection of preschoolers, though ECDA has clarified that the new requirement was not in response to the abuse cases.
But now, parents need also to be clear-eyed about what CCTVs can and cannot provide.
FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY?
My worry is that CCTVs give parents a false sense of security, that there is an unsaid expectation that acts of abuse will be spotted and stopped. But video surveillance is generally reactive rather than proactive.
If parents couldn’t tell something was amiss and the children do not (or cannot, for the younger ones) communicate an incident, there is no trigger to request access to CCTV footage. Parents’ access will only be granted “to clarify feedback or to assist the investigation of serious incidents,” said ECDA.
Access to the footage remains at the discretion of centre leadership. What happens if the preschool principal does not take claims seriously or tries to let the allegations blow over? Will there be a way to seek third-party intervention?
Sure, some technological solution could be overengineered to mitigate these issues, perhaps by deploying artificial intelligence for video analytics. But I’m not sure I want my children in a preschool environment with prison-like surveillance and a lack of trust that seeps into the parent-teacher relationship.
And while CCTVs are considered to have a deterrent effect on bad behaviour, teachers who do not see their methods as abusive might simply learn to use them only in blindspots or where cameras cannot be installed, such as toilets.
DON’T LET CCTV BLIND US FROM OTHER IMPROVEMENTS
That is not to say CCTVs are without value. Used appropriately, they can protect educators too, by providing a valuable and objective view in the case of an allegation or dispute.
But we must not stop there, thinking CCTVs alone will ensure a safe preschool environment, and blind ourselves from other steps to improve early childhood education.
One question that has arisen in reactions to the Kinderland abuse cases is why the preschool did not act earlier. According to the former teacher who filmed the Woodlands Mart incident, she had alerted the principal to the alleged mistreatment but was told that Lin had been with the school for years. Lin was only fired after the videos went viral.
Is it an issue of making organisations take whistleblowers more seriously? Preschool employees should feel empowered to call out bad behaviour by their colleagues, but neither should be taken at their word for it - it is incumbent on leaders to verify and take swift action.
A perennial issue that needs addressing is, of course, manpower. Preschool teachers not only teach - they also have to deal with naps, potty training and meltdowns. Most parents already have their hands full with one or two - what more a class of 20 easily excitable toddlers?
Improving the staff-child ratio and supporting teachers’ mental well-being could help reduce the emotional toll, which could go some way to prevent stress from building up and bubbling over.
A pay increase, such as for teachers in government-supported preschools who will see a pay bump of up to 30 per cent over 2023 and 2024, is a step in the right direction. But tensions will also arise if childcare fees go up and parents feel the strain.
RELIABLE CHILDCARE CRUCIAL FOR PARENTS WITH FEW ALTERNATIVES
Honestly, I don’t know how I’d cope or stay sane without childcare - any working parent who survived the COVID-19 circuit breaker when preschools were closed for two months in 2020 will attest to that.
But therein lies a sobering conundrum: Parents have limited alternatives even if they had suspicions about their children’s safety. Some preschools already have year-long waiting lists; those with vacancies may be inconveniently situated for busy working parents; and not every family has a domestic helper or grandparent ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
Even the mother of the child who was force-fed water called it a “lose-lose situation” and has no plans to withdraw her child yet as it is hard to “just find another school”.
With promoting marriage and parenthood on the national agenda, childcare is one area where mess-ups can be damaging. Good, reliable childcare is key to helping mothers back into the workforce, something that factors in many of my contemporaries’ decision to start a family.
Preschools are a place for children to learn and grow. Their personal safety really should be the least of parents’ worries.
It’s ironic that the viral videos surfaced in the week leading up to Teachers’ Day, originally on Sep 1 before it was shifted to Sep 11 because of the recent Presidential Election. As my older toddler muttered “I love Ms S, I love BH laoshi” to herself while doodling on a card for her teachers, I doubt having CCTVs in classrooms will change much for most preschool teachers. But ensuring a safe preschool environment shouldn’t stop there.
Charlene Tan is a senior editor at CNA Digital where she oversees commentaries.